Beginnings: Project-Based Learning

In her book, Lori says that preschool age is the ideal time to introduce project-based learning. This might seem counterintuitive–aren’t older kids more capable of more extensive work?–but so far, the experience in my house is falling right in line with this advice. My daughter, who is almost four (!), has taken right to the idea of learning and expressing. My son, at eight, is struggling a bit more, but I chalk this up as much to the way in which his school used these same terms to mean very different things as I do to his age.

I have to admit right up front that my grasp of project-based learning is still–not shaky, but not firm, either. Our environment could be better organized. My documentation could be better. But we’re beginning where we are, and even with small steps, big things are happening. You just need to know where to look.

We started with a trip to the library.

We’re beginning history at the beginning, and my son mentioned several aspects of Egyptian history he’d like to learn about. (We’ve since added to this stack through interlibrary loan.) He also, though, has a strong interest in geology and thought that might be a possible project topic, too. I wrote down everything he mentioned so I could remind him about them later.

My daughter wants to learn about mummies. Now that she understands the general plan, she has a huge list of things she wants to learn about, but the mummies seems to be a deep interest, tied in with an overall interest in death and dying and what happens to people when they die. Not too long ago, she made the connection between “dead” and “never coming back” and melted down completely about not wanting to die, ever. It was heartwrenching and one of those unexpected epiphanies that occurred as we drove past a cemetery–nothing planned, with no precipitating event. I suspect the interest in mummies may be tied into this mulling over about death that has been going on in her mind.

Once we had the books, we read. My son read to himself, and I read out loud to both of them. He decided to focus in on pyramids, although I reminded him of his other initial interests. He does not see “project” as the entire process–learning, documenting, and sharing. He connects the term “project” with a thing, something tangible that has been constructed: a model, a poster, a diorama. I’d recognized this over the summer and had intended to call our projects “investigations,” but the word project slipped through anyway, and he is, at the moment, a bit hung up on the doing. His former school purportedly has a project-based curriculum, but we are using many of the same words in completely different ways. I explained to him: “I am not going to tell you your topic, what you have to learn about it, and how you have to share that information (which is how “projects” seemed to be handled in his classroom last year). You get to choose the topic, you get to learn what you want, and you share it how you want. My job is to make sure you have the resources you need, help you figure out how to find out what you want to know, and get any materials for you.”

So it comes back around to what Lori was saying–to my daughter, who has spent her entire life soaking things up like a sponge (that is what babies and toddlers and preschoolers do), it’s entirely natural to explore a new subject in exactly the same way. My son needs to relearn to trust his natural curiosity. I could tell we were making progress when I told him that he wasn’t going to have a set amount of time, like in school, to finish a project. He could take as long as he needed to learn what he wanted to know.

“So if it takes me five months, that’s okay? Five months on the same thing?”

“If that’s what you need, that’s what we’ll do,” I told him.

In an upcoming post–because I realized this post would be super long if I included it all here!–I’ll share more photos of how our reading transformed our living room and how my daughter distilled some of what she’s learning into her first representation.

4 thoughts on “Beginnings: Project-Based Learning

  1. Angie

    Wow! I think you’re doing well, especially for saying you’re still not entirely settled into this! I love the way you’re communicating with your son. Since we were in school too, I understand what you’re saying about him being caught up in the doing, the project as in a tangible end result instead of a process or a way of life. It is hard to overcome this thinking! But I think you’re on a roll here with explaining where you’re coming from, how he is in control, and how you’re there to help, not dictate. Awesome update!

  2. Michelle

    Post-school, we didn’t call it anything. I asked what she wanted to learn, but she wasn’t responsive. So we just went to the library and she would check out stacks of whatever looked interesting that week, then sh’d write stories and make her own encyclopedias. My challenge is to get her to that next step and going further.

    But the little one. Ugh, she’s always had that for an example, but she’s not motivated the same way. I’m struggling with her.

    I still get caught up with the word project.

Comments are closed.